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Remembering the role women played Richard Peña | Sat, May 24 2014 12:00 PM

Next Monday is Memorial Day, also known in some quarters as Decoration Day. It is the day that honors the nation’s war dead and reminds us of wars past. It is a legal holiday that goes back more than 100 years. It originally honored the Civil War dead only. But in later years it was amended to honor the dead of all wars.

The stories told about past wars and the hardships endured by many also makes us resolve that there should never be other similar happenings.

Earlier this month we highlighted women in wartime. We reported on some of those ladies who had wartime jobs during World War II. Many of them took on tasks that had previously been reserved for men. We thus had the familiar Rosie the Riveters and Winnie the Welders all contributing their bit to the war effort.

We thought we would climax this theme with a report about other ladies, those that not only worked at some of those same tasks but were members of the Armed Service. It seems like all of them have a story to tell, a tale that holds our attention principally because of the trials and deprivations endured by them.

I was a guest at a luncheon meeting, a couple weeks back, held at the Veteran’s Museum in Balboa Park, of the local chapter of the Women’s Army Corps Veteran’s Association (WACS) a retired volunteer group of ex army members who still meet regularly and keep the spirit of their unit alive. I had been alerted to this group by a Chula Vista resident, Ann Biffle, who makes her home at the Congregation Towers.  She had read our stories on the ladies who had served on defense jobs but were not members of the military. She wanted me to meet this group.

The Women’s Army Corps was established by the U.S. Congress in 1942 for auxiliary noncombatant duty during World War II.  It was organized originally as the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) but the name was modified in 1943. The first director was the newspaper publisher Oveta Culp Hobby, who served for three years with the rank of colonel. At the height of the WAC in 1945 there were more than 90,000 members in the unit. With the passage of the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act in 1948 the WAC was made part of the regular army. Currently their numbers are in the 85,000 range. They have a permanent training base in Alabama.

Most of the ladies with whom I met the other day were members of the WAC with a few being regular army. You might recall that other units of the military had their women’s counterparts. Prominent among these are the WAVES of the U.S. Navy.  The WAC ladies insist that theirs is the most active. Mary Harrington is the local unit’s president. In her army days she was a cartographer. She tells me that the unit participates in ceremonies honoring various parts of the military. In conjunction with Memorial Day the ladies will be assisting at a wreath laying on board the USS Midway on Saturday, May 28th and a veteran’s open house that afternoon at the Veteran’s Museum. All these are open to the public.

At 84 years of age Florence Morris, also know as Betty, is probably the oldest member. She had various jobs in the army and remembers them all vividly. With the recent passing of her husband, however, she will be moving to other parts of the country but she told us that her heart is still here. There is also Beverly Michaelson who served in Great Falls, Montana as a cook. She relates how she had three friends in her army stint and is still in contact with them.

By contrast one of the youngest is Jil McGrievy. She is a graduate of Chula Vista High School. She comes about her military life quite naturally. Her father, a veteran, is a Pearl Harbor survivor. Most of Jil’s army duty was at Fort Knox, Kentucky. 

Mary Kinney was, like others, in radio repair, an occupation that apparently had many women takers. Most of the radios were from aircraft. They had to be removed from the plane, repaired and then returned, said Mary.
Not all was gravy. Emily Draice relates how she did not like the underwear. On display in our meeting room is part of the WAC uniform including the underwear. On studying them I can understand Emily’s dilemma. 

My original informant, Ann Biffle, had a varied career in the Army. She was both enlisted and an officer and once got as far as Korea during the war in that country.  She was a cryptography specialist and could probably decipher codes of all types.

There are a number of local activities, memorials, wreath layings, and probably also a few speeches. They are listed in the papers. They are open to the public. Most of us, I believe, should take an hour or so of our time to attend one or more. And while we are there we might remember the Ann Biffles and Mary Harringtons of the military and give them a silent salute. I am sure they would like that.

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